Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Carmen Gayler (12) is congratulated by her Heritage teammates in the dugout after she scored a run against visiting Marist on Oct. 28, 2019, in the GHSA Class AAAA state championship matchup.

Northwest Georgia programs won three of the GHSA's eight fastpitch softball championships in 2019, and each team in that title-winning trio expects to contend again this fall — though two of them might have a tougher path to navigate.

Beginning Thursday, GHSA softball teams can hold their first official games of a 2020 season that will be played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though most area schools won't begin competition until next week.

Heritage, Ringgold and Gordon Lee won state titles in Class AAAA, AAA and A public, respectively, and after reclassification and region realignment by the Georgia High School Association, the two Catoosa County programs find themselves in deeper leagues.

Heritage (29-6 last year), a nine-time region champion and the winner of back-to-back state titles, welcomes a pair of state playoff teams, Cedartown and Central-Carroll, to a new-look Region 7-AAAA (five of the seven teams were previously in 6-AAAA). Those two join an already tough league lineup that includes perennial playoff participants Northwest Whitfield and Ridgeland.

"Central-Carroll made the elite eight four consecutive years and won the state four years ago," Heritage coach Tanner Moore said. "We beat them in the sweet 16 in 2018 on the way to our first championship. They were really young last year, so they will be tough. Cedartown also didn't have a senior last year, so they will be better. Northwest, Ridgeland, Pickens ... it's all tough."

Heritage did not graduate a player from the title team and will again feature powerful pitcher Rachel Gibson, who won 23 games with a 0.95 ERA and struck out 296 batters while walking only 37 in 161 2/3 innings. The lineup is equal parts power and speed: Carmen Gayler (.429, seven home runs, 46 RBIs) is the main source of power, with the speed provided by Riley KoKinda (.386, 36 runs, 22 stolen bases), Bailey Christol (.423, 37, 18) and Zoe Wright (.337, 33, 19).

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Calhoun's Mattlie Jan Mashburn gets to third base ahead of the tag by Ringgold's Jade Gainer on Oct. 1, 2019, in Ringgold, Ga.

Reclassification was a good news/bad news case for Ringgold. Longtime rival Calhoun, a four-time state champion, was moved to Class AAAAA, but moving in are Rockmart, the 2017 Class AA champion and a 29-game winner last year, and LaFayette, one of the final eight teams in the Class AAAA bracket last fall.

"The region is always hard, and it will be again," Ringgold coach Daniel Hackett said. "Rockmart has been really good and so has LaFayette, but Calhoun was great. It's a tough league."

Ringgold (31-4 in 2019) returns a good portion of a lineup that averaged more than eight runs a game, including all-state players Riley Nayadley (.479, 38 RBIs), Baleigh Pitts (.362, 21 RBIs), Jade Gainer (.394, five homers, 35 runs, 28 RBIs) and Amber Gainer (.364, four homers, 35 runs).

Also back are four others who started most of the time. One of those, Taylor Layne, is the top candidate to replace graduated all-state pitcher Kaylee Phillips (23-3 in 2019), and her performance will be a key to the team's success.

"Chances are Taylor Layne will head up the circle, followed closely by Maddie Baker, a sophomore," Hackett said. "We're throwing everybody we can throw right now, trying to find who is going to throw a lot of strikes and let our defense work. That's the key for us."

Gordon Lee (33-1 in 2019) is highly favored to win its fifth straight Class A public state title — the Chickamauga program has won 10 championships in all, nine of them in the past decade — in large part because of its pitching. Coach Dana Mull's team has perhaps the top duo in the state in any classification with senior Emma Minghini (18-1, 0.54 ERA) and junior Emma Langston (15-0, 0.68), who are committed to Georgia Tech and Georgia, respectively.

Each also hit better than .400 last season, as did Allie Farrow, who had 36 RBIs and six homers, and senior outfielder Addison Sturdivant, who hit at a .539 clip with 30 stolen bases last year.

Contact Lindsey Young at Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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Staff file photo / Gordon Lee's Emma Langston, pictured, and Emma Minghini give their program a potent duo for the pitching circle once again this season.